Caliban’s War by James S.A. Corey (audio)

I raced through book two of this series (book one here). Boy, that last one was a long review, wasn’t it? I’ll try and be more brief this time. To start with: I’m definitely hooked on The Expanse.

Caliban’s War keeps Holden and his deeply likeable crew at its center, while Detective Miller is nearly absent, having flown off to Venus with the protomolecule version of Julie Mao. Tor’s article on this volume (which, again, I found an excellent guide) says that “Holden is the through line, but only in a way that centers things for the reader. He’s really a vehicle for everyone else,” which I think is nicely put. A few new characters enter the spotlight. Prax, or Dr. Praxidike Meng, whose daughter has been kidnapped, is a meek botanist big on brains and short on street smarts. I occasionally found him maddening, but he makes an interesting contribution to the little family that is Holden’s crew. He also, through the crisis of his missing child and her link to the protomolecule, provides the novel its central one-off storyline. Chrisjen Avasarala is a UN (Earth) politician, and a delightfully nuanced character with all the backstory required to make her interesting and believable; she could carry a whole book on her own. And Sergeant Bobbie Draper of Mars is like a female Jack Reacher: huge, badass, clever and loveable (as long as she’s on your side). Avasarala recruits Bobbie, and the two of them work together to try and avert disaster in the tenuous cold war between Earth, Mars and the Outer Belt following the events of book one.

Whew.

Although Wikipedia calls Holden, Prax, Avasarala, and Bobbie the four main characters of this book, I think that sells Holden’s crew short. His love affair with Naomi is progressing, with its issues. Alex is offscreen for part of the story, and receives somewhat less character development, but Amos is coming right along. The friend who turned me on to this series calls him a psychopath, but I think that’s not the least bit fair. He cries for children in danger. I love Amos. And the family togetherness of the crew of the Rocinante (Holden named it) is a sweet point – approaching saccharine, actually, but I seem to have a high tolerance for that, once I’ve bought in. And I’ve definitely bought in here.

My endorsement of this series continues. It’s sci fi for people who care more about people than the science. It’s right up my alley, action-packed but also all about character development and human conflict and feelings. On to the next one.


Rating: 8 children.

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey (audio)

This was a definite departure from my usual reading, in part because it was listening and not reading. Two life changes contribute: one, that I live in a van now, and do a fair amount of driving, therefore time to listen. And two, I graduated! and have far fewer reading commitments, so I thought I might have brain-room for audiobooks again. Yay!

This was also a genre departure. A friend set me up with The Expanse series on audio, highly recommended. He calls these books “hard-boiled film noir in space,” which all rings true, although I would have said sci fi as a first-level categorization.

I did a little research and reading around as I wrote this review, which is fairly unusual, but I’m so unfamiliar with the genre that I felt at a loss. I am glad I poked around like I did. I learned, in this article from Tor.com, about the “space western” sub-genre, which made instant sense for Leviathan Wakes even before I read the full description of that genre distinction. On the other hand, it was interesting to note in that article that its author found Miller a trying character and was always anxious to get back to Holden. While I can’t say the opposite – I certainly found Holden compelling – I did feel Miller was sympathetic and genuine. Some people really are that depressed, depressing, and self-sabotaging. Or maybe it’s just that I love noir mysteries, with their disturbed PIs.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Leviathan Wakes takes place in a future in which humans have colonized Mars and a good chunk of the solar system. The major political players in this world are Earth and Mars, with an outer asteroid belt roiling and muttering rebellion under the name OPA (Outer Planets Alliance), which has been labelled a terrorist organization by the major powers. In this setting, we have a handful of protagonists, chiefly two men: James Holden, Earthborn captain of a commercial ship and former officer in the United Nations Navy, and Joe Miller, a rundown Beltborn detective and classic noir figure (his wife left him, he drinks too much, he’s dysfunctional but still has a good heart). There’s also Holden’s crew, Naomi, Amos, and Alex; and Julie Mao, rich girl turned OPA fighter, who we meet only briefly at the beginning of the book. She becomes a missing person and Miller is assigned (by nontraditional means) to find her. He becomes obsessed.

This is a hard plot to summarize because a lot happens (the paperback is some 600 pages, the audiobook 21 hours). If you want more, the Wikipedia page does a pretty good job of summary, but beware spoilers there. I’ll turn to another’s words again: Aidan Moher, the writer at Tor.com, praises this book “for being open and approachable for anyone with even a remote interest in science fiction, but specifically for those who are intimidated by the hard science that often forms the backbone Space Opera. It focuses instead on the intricacies of the human machine — relationships, anxieties, dreams, loss, redemption, acceptance.” Well put, and explains why I was able to enter so easily into this world. Human relationships, etc., are definitely my main interest in literature.

I had a great time listening to this one. I felt pulled in by the momentum of both character development and plot; it stayed entertaining always. There were a few elements I let slide by me: the tech (and anything I missed was not a problem), and also the lovely patois spoken by Belters, which mixes a few languages (English, Spanish, Hindi, and more: there’s a great page here). That pidgin language offered great color and I felt like I understood enough to get along. (I’m often a fan of foreign languages used in English writings, where context clues or cognates give me enough to get by, and I’m generally able to trust the author that what I miss is unnecessary to my understanding of the larger work.) In other words, I thoroughly agree with Moher: this was an easily accessible sci fi novel that I loved for its human elements. Despite being a longish book, pacing was snappy, and the alternating viewpoints of Holden and Miller kept things lively as well. I am absolutely looking forward to the next book in the series, which is Caliban’s War. Stand by: I’m going to switch gears in a big way and listen to some Stegner next, and then back to the old space western. My friend who has given me the series tells me this one will be “more horror and psych thriller,” with which I am right on board.

Thanks for the hook-up, Paul.


Rating: 8 vomit zombies.

movie: Peppermint (2018)

My date for this movie called its hero a female Jack Reacher. He’s right and he’s wrong.

The plot of Peppermint reminded me of The Brave One. That 2007 movie starred Jodie Foster as a woman recovered from a coma to find that her fiancé had been killed in the same attack that left her hospitalized. She becomes a vigilante, taking her own justice against those who wronged her as well as other wrongdoers in the community. In this one, Jennifer Garner’s husband and daughter are killed in front of her; she disappears for five years, trains to become a badass, a vigilante, and comes back to take her own justice against those who wronged her as well as other wrongdoers in the community.

On the plus side: Jennifer Garner is ripped and she is beautiful and I like her. The fight scenes and blow-em-up scenes are exciting, and I didn’t notice anybody firing forty-seven shots out of a magazine that holds twelve rounds (as is so common on my beloved show The Walking Dead). As pure adrenaline-excitement-thriller, this one satisfies.

On the minus side, quite a few things. Garner’s character is not developed. She loved her husband and child – we can easily trust this, but that’s pretty much all of her personality that we know, and it’s not much of a personality; it’s something most people with spouses and children carry, in fact. We don’t get to see any of her training to become the badass that we see onscreen. A single line of dialog by (if memory serves) an FBI agent describes her training in foreign countries, but it’s a very brief line. The actual becoming – a critical piece of growth, and that which makes this movie – takes place all off-screen. I’m thinking of Kill Bill here, and how it showed Uma Thurman’s character gaining her skills: that’s an important part of the story, movie people! To put it another way: the plot of this movie is easily summed up in the single sentence I wrote above. Jennifer Garner’s husband and daughter are killed in front of her; she disappears for five years, trains to become a badass, a vigilante, and comes back to take her own justice against those who wronged her as well as other wrongdoers in the community.

Pretty plot-weak, then. But successful as a blow-em-up thriller: for one thing, the weakly sketched plot tends to resonate with all of us (underdog wins; justice is served), and even with a sort of cheap version of feminism (Jennifer Garner has muscles and beats the men). Hollywood knows their formula. I enjoyed it, actually. My date enjoyed it even more. But a female Jack Reacher? No. Reacher’s author, Lee Child, gives his hero copious backstory. His books have plenty of plot twists. And his strategies, methods, and skills are detailed and explained. The Reacher books are told in either first-person or a close third-person-limited perspective, meaning that we get to know what Reacher thinks and feels. Any of these elements would have done Jennifer Garner’s character so much good, in terms of depth.

Still fun, though. Beautiful muscles on our heroine. Stay out of her way.


Rating: 5 shells.

reread: Never Go Back by Lee Child (audio)

In my defense, it’s been more than four years since I listened to this audiobook for the first time (and reviewed it here): I had forgotten what happened, and got to find it new again. I seem to have reached the stage of forgetfulness in which I can enjoy a thriller/murder mystery novel a second time, with the same fresh eyes. Hooray! That always looked like one of the best features of aging. (Perhaps my brain’s just saturated.)

I recently took a road trip with a friend, and he wanted to listen to a book, and I figured Reacher would work for him, so here we are with an unplanned reread. I’ll keep this brief, because I think my earlier comments remain true. I was deeply concerned this time around with the erroneous use of the 50/50 coin toss idea. Reacher (and therefore Child) is usually so smart! But the many scenarios where the coin toss idea is used here are all binary choices, having two options; rarely do they hold even odds. Ugh.

On the other hand, I still love the sexiness, the cleverness, and the depth of the Susan Turner character (Reacher’s romantic alliance in this episode). I still love the formula, and formula it most certainly is; but having acknowledged that, what’s the problem? It works for me every time.

The extent to which I’d forgotten this plot excites me. It’s got me thinking about all the Martha Grimes books I enjoyed in my teens and early 20s: those should all be new to me now, too!

On that note, Happy Friday, y’all. I hope you have a weekend as awesome as a Lee Child novel (but with less violence).


Rating: I’ll stick with those 7 cars.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

My mistake is also my good fortune. Travel to West Virginia was supposed to go smoothly from the San Antonio airport, through Dulles, to Rochester; but of course I ended up delayed, rerouted through O’Hare, with a half-day to kill at the airport before ever leaving Texas. I had packed more books in my checked bag, but ended up running out of available-at-hand reading material in Chicago. So I bought a book at an airport newsstand. Bad news: long travel day. Bad news: so many books at home (and in that checked bag) that I wanted or needed to read. Good news: a delicious, un-looked-for chance to read a new-ish Harry Bosch mystery.

Remember when I got to read genre mysteries for fun? Whew, it’s been a while (a little over three years). The Wrong Side of Goodbye finds LAPD’s Detective Harry Bosch retired from the force–forced into retirement, in fact, under a dark cloud (which will surprise no one who knows his genre-typical troubles with authority, despite also being an authority). He’s got a PI license, and has been moonlighting–unpaid–with the small-town San Fernando police force, in an “island city” in the middle of LA. His job with the SFPD is to examine cold cases, which is right up his alley. In the opening pages, Bosch has just received a pair of assignments. A multi-billionaire octogenarian hires him, with the utmost secrecy and confidence, to track down an heir who may or may not exist. And San Fernando is plagued by a serial rapist who appears to be escalating. With the help of Mickey Haller (whose fame began with Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer), Bosch tracks both cases. The first will take him into his own memories and traumas of the Vietnam War, and the second will take him into grave danger. But Bosch hasn’t lost his touch, no matter what the LAPD may think.

Classic, and good for the fans. Bosch’s daughter Maddie has grown up and is attending college. Bosch and Haller have a solid working relationship and more. Bosch retains his old skills. This was a nostalgia read for me. I found the same old, good old hero I remember. As I reflect, I’m not sure he shows the evolution of age that perhaps he should at this point in the series. Maddie has grown up, but Bosch feels the same. His professional status has changed, but I don’t detect much of a nod to aging, physically or in terms of his outlook on the world. This may be an element of unrealism in a mostly realistic series. But this is escapist reading for me, too, so I’m unbothered. If I find Bosch just as I left him, that’s okay with me. This is the Bosch I missed.

The mystery part of the book is as good as ever. I love this stuff, and I’m so grateful to Michael Connelly and to that newsstand at O’Hare for bringing me this joy. It was a rare pleasure. And now back to my studies.


Rating: 7 pre-rolled joints.

guest review: Night School by Lee Child, from Mom

I’m so glad to have my mother around to review Lee Child along with me – or in this case, to review one I haven’t read yet! (For the moment, this is his newest, but I’m sure there’ll be another along shortly.) Night School follows my most recent Reacher read, Make Me, although the two are not chronological sequels. My mother sent this as an email to me, not intended as a formal review, but I appreciated it and she gave her permission to post.

Here’s Mom.
night-school

I really liked this book, especially compared to Make Me, which I finished afterwards. (And found excessively cruel and graphic, although well-plotted.) The story line carries us along beautifully. Another working of what’s up?, as in Make Me, where we don’t know quite what the deal is, but we have enough info to be looking hard at the details. And of course we get to tangle with some bad guys in number, and whip their fascist asses in entertaining variety.

Here Reacher is still in the army, which means a lot of structure and conflict built in from the bureaucracy. (In Make Me, he’s a bit of a drifter looking for adventure – and I know that’s a claim to fame for his fans.) So the Army sends him to Germany in this quest for the problem they need to solve. He bumps against the neo-nationalists so much you start to wonder if they are part of the plot. Hmmm.

So the plot is the thing, but Child’s writing is beautifully not present. I noted at first the short declarative sentences. After a 50-page warm-up, the story just flowed through. Some of the great stuff: He says to the German adversary, So why do you suppose you speak my language but I don’t speak yours? (Something to do with how important your language/country might be?) Or – the Germans thought they were uniting under one umbrella, but the West saw it as an arrangement of military bases with the people there efficiently manning the hotels and cafes.

I remember that Child is originally British, not to suggest he has an ax to grind. His character is man of integrity without a lot of allegiance to the system. His assistant in this is Neagley, the sergeant in War Games (the short story included at the end of Make Me). She’s perfect here, completely at his command (“adores him,” someone says), but has some complex that doesn’t allow any touch. So the sex interest is his boss, and of course the sex does not get in the way of the plot advances.

I could do some more page-turning like this, and I can’t help but like this impossible character.

Well said all around, in my opinion. I like what you said about the bureaucracy and the foil it provides. Cruel & graphic, yes: this is an important note for prospective new Reacher readers. Must have high threshold for blood. And the plot is indeed the thing. Lee Child excels at several things, I think: that invisibly expressive writing you mention, and action sequences (suspenseful fights I can really see), and a hell of a charismatic lead man. You said it: he’s an impossible character but we just can’t help but follow him. But the plots are nice and complex, filled with technical details and enough to challenge the experienced mystery/thriller reader. That is what I think you’re saying here, anyway.

About that “beautifully not present” writing, I find Reacher’s voice to be distinct and entertaining. Some of the books in this series are written in third person and some in first. And perhaps since I’ve listened to so many as audiobooks (and I highly recommend what narrator Dick Hill does with them!), I think that voice is a big part of the charisma. Those short, declarative, sarcastic, witty deliveries, even just inside his own head, really serve to characterize him.

Well done and thanks. I look forward to Night School and more of the page-turning and impossibilities.

Maximum Shelf: Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito, trans. by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on November 16, 2016.


quicksand“It smells like rotten eggs. The air is hazy and gray with gunpowder smoke. Everyone has been shot but me. I haven’t got even as much as a bruise.”

Malin Persson Giolito’s Quicksand opens with a tableau, featuring Dennis, a fat teenager from Uganda; Samir, an academic overachiever; Christer, the homeroom teacher; Amanda, “all cashmere, white gold, and sandals”; and the son of the richest man in Sweden, cradled in the narrator’s lap. “People like us don’t usually spend time together. Maybe on a Metro platform during a taxi-driver strike, or in the dining car on a train, but not in a classroom.”

Maja Norberg is on trial for her role in a school shooting that left her boyfriend and her best friend dead, among others. She has been waiting in isolation in a women’s prison for nine months. Media attention has been intense and frenzied: Maja comes from the privileged upper class of Djursholm, a wealthy suburb of Stockholm. She was a good girl, reasonably well-liked and a good student. She has been portrayed in the news as a poor little rich girl, self-centered to the point of disregarding the value of human lives.

In flashback chapters, Maja’s story slowly becomes clearer. Bit by bit, her relationships with her alleged victims are revealed. In two sections–one handling the trial and the other leading up to the shooting–Maja’s first-person perspective offers a shifting view of the world. “I read somewhere that ‘the truth is whatever we choose to believe.’ Which sounds even more insane, if that’s even possible. Like someone can just decide what’s true and what’s false?”

Quicksand is Persson Giolito’s fourth novel and her first to be translated from Swedish into English. Translator Rachel Willson-Broyles smoothly renders Maja’s voice, by turns cynical and yearning, hard-edged and vulnerable. Paired with a knack for deadpan dialogue, this voice presents a realistic impression of an 18-year-old woman, one charged with the most heinous crime in her country’s recent memory. The strength and poignancy of Maja’s nuanced voice command sympathy, even though she has–perhaps–done terrible things.

The central question of the novel is, of course, Maja’s guilt or innocence. Although the trial itself shapes the narrative, she is reluctant to make a claim about her involvement in the shooting, even in thought. Readers must follow along slowly in dual timelines, trying to determine the shifting truth for themselves. Meanwhile, Maja’s story imperceptibly expands to take on larger questions and issues: class and immigration, race and racism, criminal justice systems and the media, the consequences of wealth and leisure, love and obsession, what is owed by a parent to a child. The false dichotomy of guilt and innocence plays a central role. It is to Persson Giolito’s great credit that such weighty topics move smoothly through a plot that is taut and relentless, even as its protagonist passes monotonous days in a prison cell.

Because Maja’s traumatized, often apathetic perspective offers the reader’s only view of this story, characterization takes place slowly and leaves holes. Her family and classmates matter only as they matter to her. Dennis, her boyfriend’s drug dealer, is of little value. Amanda is both an intimate and an empty-headed cipher–Maja’s best friend, like a sister, but alternately familiar and remote. Maja has a real sister, too, who plays a very different role; her parents, unsurprisingly, are due for a certain amount of Maja’s scorn. Sebastian’s character is at the crux of the plot’s mysteries, standing in for all the contradictions implied by wealth, success and dissatisfaction. Maja and Sebastian’s romance begins with 15 days in the Mediterranean on a yacht almost 60 meters long, and she comments more than once on “the surreality of it all, that world of postcard-blue and sparkling sunshine and plink-plonk manicures.” This surreality drives home that sparkle and money don’t buy happiness. Maja will ponder that lesson and others as the trial progresses, as the reader gradually puts together the pieces of her story and as her fate looms.

Quicksand is a novel focused on a school shooting, but in no way feels hackneyed or dependent on its timeliness. In fact, it’s not really about a school shooting at all. It’s about larger abstractions, like loyalty and codependence, love and guilt, the incredibly complicated business of being a teenager, criminal justice systems (Sweden’s in particular, and as a concept), the role of the media and what a parent’s job entails. Expert dialogue and irresistible momentum make an all-too-realistic story come breathing off the page. It’s a novel that demands compassion, and an appreciation for the fine gradations of situations that tend to be treated as black and white. Part courtroom thriller, part introspection, Quicksand is pulled tight throughout by the suspense, not only of Maja’s verdict, but of the elusive “truth” of what really happened in the classroom that day.


Rating: 7 parties.

Come back on Monday for my interview with Malin Persson Giolito.

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